New Hampshire primary

Crazy Political Polling Season (Again)

Election winners aren’t always the leaders in pre-vote polls, especially in the beginning of the crazy political polling season.

Election winners aren’t always the leaders in pre-vote polls, especially in the beginning of the crazy political polling season.

Donald Trump perpetually trumpets his lead in national polls. Bernie Sanders points to his surge from obscurity to a virtual tie in Iowa. Marco Rubio tells his supporters his showing in the Hawkeye State surpassed polling predictions.

Yes, it’s that crazy political polling season again.

Polls serve a purpose, but you have to take them, certainly at this point in the presidential campaign, with a grain of salt.

Trump outpolled rival GOP contender Ted Cruz in Iowa, but the ground game Cruz put together won the day in caucus sites. Were the polls wrong or did they just miscalculate the impact of Cruz staffers going door-to-door to nail down supporters who would brave winter cold to caucus? Turnout in elections is hard for polls to predict accurately.

Last-minute candidate surges can trick polls. They can be overstated or understated. Or missed, like Rubio’s in Iowa. Even weekly polls can be too slow to track fast-moving voter impressions.

How well candidates fare with key cohorts of voters can be missed, too. Hillary Clinton’s “upset” victory over Barack Obama in the 2008 New Hampshire primary was traced to polling samples that under-represented lower income voters who didn’t have or take the time to respond to telephone polls. The same problem can occur now if pollsters don’t include respondents only reachable on cell phones.

National polls can obscure state-level electoral leanings. Bernie Sanders may thrive in New Hampshire, which has a very liberal, white Democratic base and is next to his home state of Vermont. Hillary Clinton may have a clear advantage in South Carolina where African Americans dominate the Democratic base. Even though Cruz trailed Trump in national polls, he concentrated his efforts in Iowa on Christian evangelical voters who have a history of determining who wins the GOP vote there.

Polling techniques can have subtle influences on outcomes, which is why different polls taken at the same time with equivalent samples and sample sizes produce varying results. One of the factors in polling discrepancies is “tactical voting” or undecided voters declaring a preference they really don’t mean. When you have a lot of candidates, this factor grows in significance.

Then there is the confusion between polls and probabilities. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight earned a reputation – and skeptics – for basing candidate predictions on a different statistical analysis, not on the candidate's poll numbers. In a tweet following the Iowa caucuses Monday night, Silver said, “Polls in general elections = pretty good. Polls in primaries = much less accurate. Iowa caucus = especially tough.”

In a blog before the caucus, Silver said poll numbers don’t lie; they just don’t tell you the truth. “Could Marco Rubio win the Iowa caucuses despite not having led in a single poll here?” Silver wrote. "Sure. Rick Santorum did that exact thing four years ago.”

So if you are influenced by poll numbers in the early going of the presidential race, you might want to reconsider. The political polling crazy season is just beginning (again).

Polling Versus Probabilities

Donald Trump and Ben Carson still lead the national polls, but the real question is what are the true probabilities of ever being elected President.

Donald Trump and Ben Carson still lead the national polls, but the real question is what are the true probabilities of ever being elected President.

Republican presidential candidates, especially those left off the main stage podium for debates, have groused about the use of national polls to determine who is on and who is off.

National polls for some time now have placed Donald Trump and Ben Carson at the top of the GOP heap, positioning them center stage in debates and as prime candidates for earned media exposure. But do national polls a year out from the actual election really tell much of a story?

Nate Silver, the founder and editor of popular number-crunching blog site FiveThirtyEight, suggests that looking at probabilities would be more useful at this point. In an online chat on his site, Silver said there is basically a 50-50 chance for either the Democratic or Republican party to win an election following a two-term presidency. The key to projecting ahead, he says, is to evaluate what could sway the probabilities one way or another.

One influence identified in the online chat is the favorability rating of President Obama. His ranking has trended up to around 46 percent, which Silver says may mean that he won't have much tipping capacity either way.

The most significant factor, Silver says, is whether Republicans nominate a conservative (he names Ted Cruz, Ben Carson or Donald Trump). If one of them is the standard-bearer, Silver thinks Hillary Clinton, assuming she wins the Democratic presidential nomination, would have the "clear edge." That edge could widen if Republicans nominate a more centrist candidate and a conservative mounts an independent challenge.

Handicapping the electoral potential of candidates is something political polls don't do. They provide snapshots over time of how well a candidate is doing relative to his or her competitors.

The candidates, or at least most of them, recognize this. Rick Santorum, who is mired at near zero in national polls even though he won the Iowa caucus vote in 2012, told "Face the Nation" recently that polling fails to take into account residual support and the effectiveness of a ground game campaign strategy. Santorum also said national polls are meaningless and all that matters is how Iowans cast their votes on a cold winter night in January.

State-specific polls generally have reflected the dominance of Trump and Carson, but they aren't so firm that they couldn't change suddenly depending on who wins or does well in Iowa and the follow-on primary in New Hampshire.

The Iowa and New Hampshire votes are expected to accelerate the dropout rate in the still large GOP field of candidates. For example, if Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucus vote in 2008, dropped out, who is best positioned to pick up his supporters in other states? Ditto for the departure of a major candidate like Jeb Bush.

A smaller cast of candidates would focus the choice Republican voters have to make, which could dramatically alter poll results.

Which brings us back to Silver and his reliance on probabilities, not polling. If you were going to the racetrack to pick a winner, you would agree with Silver and look at a horse's potential, not its popularity.